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Where's Susan? (Part 2)

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Since I left Ring Lake Ranch two weeks ago after a teaching sojourn that was simultaneously restorative and stimulating, Noche's tires have hummed another 1,200 miles. First west to Grand Teton National Park, where I waved at that familiar wall of peaks as I drove by. (That's the Tetons at the top of the post.) I didn't stop to explore the familiar park because I was on a mission, headed north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP, where I spent a week working at eradicating non-native, invasive weeds. 

For the past four summers, I've spent at least a week, usually three or four, in Yellowstone doing what I call my "weeding mission." Which is about as much like weeding a garden as running a marathon is like my twice-weekly half-hour run on a treadmill. They're both exercise, but running a marathon and eradicating invasive weeds are both long games: each requires patience, strategy, and as much mental toughness as physical toughness. 

As I've written in other contexts, including this blog post for Off the Beaten Path, what leads a non-native plant to being called "invasive" is not a prejudice against immigrants:

Tens of thousands of non-native species call the United States home without causing harm. But not every species belongs everywhere. Invasives are those relative few who don’t play well with others, the species who behave badly, a detriment to us all.

The invasive weed I was digging in my time around Mammoth in Yellowstone is spotted knapweed, known to science as Centaurea maculosa, a perennial plant native to Eastern Europe. Here on this continent, spotted knapweed so does not play well with others that it wrecks the neighborhood. When spotted knapweed moves in, its roots exude poisons into the soil, "discouraging" (aka, killing) the roots of the native species around it, so that eventually, the knapweed takes over. 

Spotted knapweed, Centuarea maculosa, quietly engaged in killing the Indian ricegrass and other native plants that songbirds and pollinators depend on, so its progeny can colonize the area. 

But, you protest, it's got such a pretty purple flower! Surely knapweed attracts bumblebees and other native bees, and perhaps its seeds are edible by wintering songbirds and small mammals, so it does actually benefit the community of the land?

It's true that bumblebees do gather pollen from knapweed, though I've never seen other native bees visit the flowers. I don't know if knapweed's seeds are sought out by any of the seed-gathering birds or mammals as winter food, but I'd guess not because they're dry and chaffy, rather than plump and nutritious. 

What I do know is that knapweed lacks the rich web of relationships with other plants and other species that sustain a healthy landscape. And by replacing the native plants, knapweed disrupts those relationships--between pollinator and flower, between bird and the insects they feed their young, between mammal and seed, between those that shelter and those sheltered.

Worse yet, if unchecked, spotted knapweed can kill off the shrubby overstory of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) that Mark Twain recognized as the "forest canopy in miniature." These century-old plants, growing as tall as ten feet with twisting stems as big as the bicep of a muscly man, shade the soil, collect rain and snow for moisture, drop a fertilizing layer of leaves, and provide food and homes for hundreds of species of wildlife, from flashy black-and-white buckmoths to speedster pronghorn antelope. 

Grandmother big sagebrush in the area I've been digging knapweed; the tallest plant is about ten feet. 

Without big sagebrush as the sheltering canopy, these drought-challenged grasslands will turn inhospitable indeed, losing species diversity, richness, and their rugged beauty. I remove knapweed as a way to honor the diversity of lives they support, and to restore their wild community to health.

Digging my plant knife into the soil to pry out the spreading roots of a spotted knapweed plant is my personal resistance to climate change, my way to give resilience to the landscapes I love. 

My plant knife next to a knapweed I have freshly pried out of the clayey soil, being careful to not disturb the sagebrush roots. 

And dig I do, kneeling on the soil, carefully inserting the seven-inch blade of my tool into the soil, and applying enough leverage that the roots come free. Then sitting back, taking a deep breath, stretching my back and my arms, before thrusting the blade into the soil to pry up another knapweed. And another, and another. In some places they are so dense that it takes me an hour or more to clear a meter-square area (that's a bit bigger than a square yard). 

By the end of three or four hours, when I am worn out for the day, I usually have two or three 30-gallon bags filled with knapweed. (I bag up the plants to be taken to the dump so that no seeds are dispersed, and so the decomposing plants don't continue to emit their mite of poison to the soil.)

Weed bags stuffed into the micro-camper where I sleep in the back of Noche, my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. 

While I'm digging weeds, I keep my ears and eyes alert for wildlife. Sometimes a grizzly bear mom wanders by with her almost-grown cubs (yes, I carry bear spray). Or the resident bull elk herds his harem of two dozen or so cows and calves right through the area where I'm working (I move safely out of the way until they leave!).

Romeo in elk form, serenading his Juliets (that's "Juliets" plural, because of how many females he was wooing). 

Or, like the afternoon I was working with filmmaker Beth Davidow, I stop in awe to watch a nearly six-foot-long bullsnake glide past, hunting silently just a few feet from where we stood. (I'm sure Beth, a talented photographer, got a much better shot!)

The hunting bullsnake--her body was as large around as my upper arm. 

In my time in Yellowstone, I worked hard, rested well, and found, as a friend put it, "balm for my soul." It does my spirit good to contribute positively to this Earth, especially in a time of crisis. 

Now I'm home, working on restoring wildness and resilience to nature right around the condo complex where I live, including the strip of pollinator habitat with the gold flare of flowering rubber rabbitbrush (Ericamera nauseosa) and rubberweed (Hymenoxys richardsonii), and purple fall asters (which I haven't yet identified) in the photo below. Not only are these native flowers beautiful and drought-tolerant, they provide fall's final banquet for pollinators of all sorts, including bees, beetles, and butterflies. And come the hungry months of winter, their seeds will feed bushtits, juncos, and other small songbirds. 

You don't have to journey to Yellowstone and dig knapweed to make a difference.

We can all restore the health of nature around us, by removing invasive weeds and planting native species in yards, parks, and nearby landscapes. In a time full of bad news, returning health, resilience, and beauty to nature nearby is good news for us all. Join me in giving back to the Earth that gives us so much!

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Where's Susan?

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As in, Where's Waldo? Except that I'm easily spotted in the front row of the photo above, shot at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range outside Dubois, Wyoming, last night. That group of people includes many of the participants in my week-long seminar, "Cultivating Sacred Stewardship of Nature in a Time of Climate Change," and some of the staff and children of Ring Lake Ranch, a dude ranch with a mission of offering "refreshment and renewal in sacred wilderness."

(The photo is missing several people, including RLR director Andy Blackmum--he's behind the camera; and multi-faceted ranch wrangler/horse whisperers Mo Morrow and DeWitt Daggett. DeWitt is presenting a seminar in September of 2020 on a spiritual practice of belonging, using horses as teachers.)

The view of Trail Lake and the high peaks of the Winds from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch.

I can attest that the ranch fulfills its mission and then some. There's the setting, which is spectacular and wonderfully "apart" enough from ordinary life to be restful just by itself. And the people, both staff and participants, who are not just warm and welcoming, but capable and playful and interesting, and intellectually and spiritually deep. And then there's the hiking and paddling and riding and food... 

I came away feeling quite refreshed and renewed--full of ideas, new connections, and excitement about the work I was teaching and the people I met. (And also a bit saddle-sore from some great trail rides, about which I am not complaining one bit!) 

Stopping on a ride to take in the view... 

Before going to Ring Lake, I was, frankly, a bit intimidated to be offering a seminar at a place that hosts noted thinkers, writers, and artists in the Christian tradition, especially knowing that among the participants in my group would be faith leaders from various mainstream Christian denominations and other traditions. Honestly, I wondered what I, a scientist and writer who considers herself a Quaker Pagan, would have to offer. 

Plenty, as it turned out. The group bubbled over with energy and excitement, ending the week with a new understanding of how restoring healthy nature nearby, including on our church grounds, can also restore us humans, our communities, and the Earth we share. I think I learned as much as the participants did, both from their responses and ideas, and from the work of examining and organizing my thoughts in order to teach. 

Sheepeater petroglyph image (circa 800 to 1,200 years ago)

Part of the magic of Ring Lake Ranch is that it has been a sacred site for at least a millennia. The ancestors of today's Eastern Shoshone people chipped petroglyphs of sacred beings they saw into the sandstone cliffs in and around the ranch. Those rock spirits, some with wings, some masked, some with clawed or curled feet, and many with curving "tails" like smoke leading out of a natural crack in the rock, have the feel of a sacred gallery, an assemblage of wisdom and visions we may never truly understand, but which offer wordless information and inspiration. 

I am still processing what was an extraordinary week. I feel as if the time at Ring Lake Ranch was a kind of sacred pilgrimage, one taken without knowing at all what I sought, and despite that, I found just what I needed. 

Looking across Yellowstone Lake this afternoon toward the wild Thorofare Valley, where I once walked alone, with only a friend's dog, on another week-long pilgrimage. 

Tonight I am in Gardiner, Montana, writing with the rushing voice of the Yellowstone River coming in my open door, as a quarter moon sails in the still-blue sky after sunset. Tomorrow I will head to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and begin a week of digging invasive weeds. Despite a gloomy forecast of rain and cold temperatures, I look forward to the hard physical work. It is good thinking time for me, and I will use it well. 

As summer edges toward fall, my wish for all of us is that we find ways to nourish our hearts, minds, and spirits, no matter these difficult times. And that we each cultivate an active relationship with the sacred community of nature around us, and find ways to nourish and restore that community, as part of the work of healing this battered planet--and us, too. 

Blessings to you all!

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Weeding: Tending My Neighborhood Arroyo

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I'm sitting at the breakfast bar in my condo, my arms scratched, body sweaty, and muscles sore, eating a grilled cheese sandwich with green chile and avocado for late dinner, feeling tired and quite satisfied. I've just spent an hour with my well-loved loppers and hand-saw, cutting invasive Siberian elm trees (Ulmus pumila) from the arroyo that runs through my neighborhood.

(That's the arroyo in the photo at the top of this post, looking upstream.)

It's a classic northern New Mexico waterway, where the water itself is hidden below ground most of the year, except after rains and snow-melt. That sub-surface "stream" helps recharge the groundwater table, and nourishes extra-lush ("lush" for this high desert, that is!) plant growth along it: scattered clusters of cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii) with New Mexico privet (Forestiera pubescens) under them, plus piñon pine (Pinus edulis) and Rocky mountain juniper (Sabina scopulorum) along the edges.

Looking down on the arroyo from the street.

The silvery-green shrubs in the photo above are rubber rabbitbrush (Ericamera nauseusa in the language of sciencechamisa in Spanish), whose flowers turn whole swaths of the landscape golden in fall, providing what my friend Lauren Springer Ogden calls "the last bar open" for pollinators of all kinds, especially butterflies, beetles, and native bees. Its chaffy seeds are critical food for bushtits and other small songbirds in the hungry months of February and March, when other food is scarce.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on a rubber rabbitbrush shrub in late September. 

Dotted among the rabbitbrush are smooth currant (Ribes cereum) with early flowers that feed hummingbirds and red berries songbirds seek out, Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) with its bee-friendly flowers and feathery and edible seeds, and narrowleaf yucca (Yucca baileyi) with the tall, candle-like flower stalks that nourish yucca moths and aphid-slurping orioles; plus dozens of kinds of wildflowers, including my favorite, long-flowered gilia (Ipomopsis longiflora), beloved of evening-flying sphinx moths for the nectaries at the base of those long floral tubes.  

Long-flowered gilia opening in the evening, ready for white-lined sphinx moths

This bounty of native plants that provides homes and food for wildlife large and small lines the arroyo--unless Siberian elms move in and take over, growing thickets of deep-rooted trees that suck up the underground water, shade out the sun-loving native flora, and drop a thick layer of leaves and small branches that smothers the soil and is as flammable as dry kindling. 

And take over they do: Siberian elms are ubiquitous throughout the arid West, imported here from Asia as a hardy, fast-growing, drought- and cold-tolerant tree that would form windbreaks and provide shade in places where shade was scarce. All of that proved true, only the trees took far too readily to their new environment, growing rapidly, and producing thousands of seeds that skittered before the wind, piling up in drifts in every nook and cranny, and sprouting much too readily. 

Which wouldn't be bad if they provided anything close to the rich habitat of the native arroyo flora. One Siberian elm may make a great shade tree for a yard; a whole thicket of them is silent, home to few insect species and fewer birds, in contrast to the lively arroyo habitat outside the thickets. Siberian elms are the definition of an invasive species: one that comes from another place, has few if any relationships with the existing natural community, and proceeds to multiply and ruin the habitat, a playground bully run amok in the landscape. 

I'm determined to not let Siberian elms take over Cañada Rincon arroyo and its joyous chorus of birdsong and wildflower blooms. I'm also determined to do what I can to give the native community resilience in the face of catastrophic climate change. So in my spare moments, I get out my tools, pull on my gloves, and walk over to the arroyo to remove another few elm trees. 

That hand-saw is as long as my forearm and my hand with fingers extended--it's a formidable tool!

I'm a steward for this section of the arroyo, which means I pick up trash (there's not much), and pull and cut invasive weeds. I'm only allowed to use hand tools, and I'm not allowed to cut down trees larger in diameter than a wrist, which I interpret quite liberally. Today I sawed down two ten- or twelve-foot tall elms (that's one of them in the middle of the photo at the top of the post), plus removed a few that were only a few feet high, the size of fat fingers at the base (for those I use the loppers).

I employ the trees whole for erosion control, dragging them over to the arroyo banks and placing them in eroded rills, trunk upstream, branches downstream. There they act as water retarders, slowing the flow and letting sediments accumulate to stem bank erosion. As long as these teenage elms don't have any seeds, I like to put them to use, rather then just consign them to the dump. 

A freshly-cut elm dragged into a side channel for erosion control. 

When I've spent my available time and energy, I dust myself off, clean my tools, and take a moment to look down "my" stretch of arroyo, noting the absence of a few more more Siberian elms. There are many more to remove, but I'm not daunted. I've reclaimed urban waterways before, and I know the power of even one passionate person (even if that one is small and getting old!) to make significant change.

The truth is, the work is good for me: Using hand tools to remove small trees is very good exercise. And by helping this stretch of arroyo become more resilient in the face of climate change, I'm boosting my resilience, and my store of hope, too. 

Looking downstream, with fewer Siberian elms in view... 

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Living In a Time of Bruised Hearts

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post-sunset
clouds flame out, fade to purple 
bruised like our hearts

I posted that haiku on social media on Monday, August 5th, after the mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

It's a bruising time personally, politically, nationally, and globally. Hate and divisiveness are flourishing like no time in my memory since the Viet Nam War era, climate change is accelerating, the astonishing diversity of life that makes this planet home for us all is suffering, war and political upheaval are displacing millions of humans, from Syria to Venezuela and Guatemala, from China's Uighar people to Yemenis starving in their home villages... 

On a personal level, I am reeling from the sudden loss of my sister-in-law, Bonnie Cabe. 

Ron and Bonnie Cabe at Richard's memorial service, December 2011

How do we live with hearts heavy and bruised? How do we get up and face each day, go to work, tend our kids and parents, our communities and our planet; how do we laugh and love when there is so much to grieve and fear and rage against? How do we cultivate resilience in a time that seems to defeat every effort?

There is no one answer, because we are all different. (And bless that diversity, because we need the creative energy of differing voices and viewpoints and talents and energy!). 

One thing we can all do is listen within for the goodness that lives inside us all, the "small, still voice" of love and kindness, justice and compassion. Whether you call that voice God or Allah or Pachmama or Universal Consciousness or simply lovingkindness, we can honor and do our best to live by its call to be our best selves, to, as Quakers say, add to the "Ocean of Light and Love" that pours over the "Ocean of Darkness and Fear."

It seems to me that if we live each day according to what we know is right, treating others with kindness and compassion, if we stand up with grace and courage for what we believe in, we can indeed turn this bruising time toward the best humanity is capable of, and away from the worst. 

How do we find the energy and resilience to act in even small kindly ways in a time that is so bruising? Again, I think there is no one answer, but I also know the benefits of time outside in nature, or "Vitamin N" as some researchers call it. Studies show that time in nature calms us physically, lowering our heart rates and blood pressure, and slowing our production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. Vitamin N also helps us think more clearly, focus better, and learn more easily; it reduces aggression and increases our empathy (including empathy to our own selves), all of which are critical to living in these frightening and painful times. 

The arroyo that runs through my neighborhood, a natural walking path for everyone from humans to coyotes, roadrunners, and horned toads. 

"Nature" doesn't have to be a wilderness; it can be the wildness that flourishes everywhere around us, whether the arroyo running through my neighborhood or the less-manicured corners of a city park. 

For me, as I wrote in a proposal for the new book I'm working on, solace and resilience and the other benefits of Vitamin N come from hanging out with native plants: 

Plants have been my solace and my inspiration for as long as I can remember: As I child, I cycled with my mom to vacant lots scheduled for bulldozing, and carefully rescued native wildflowers, carrying the plants home in my bike basket to relocate to her woodland garden. As a young scientist, I studied ecosystems from the plants’ point of view. I’ve grown gardens of native and edible plants, designed landscapes and given talks on gardening for habitat and humans, and worked at ecological restoration involving plants. 

I never reflected on why plants wove themselves through my days. Until my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the two and a quarter years that we walked with his brain tumors, I went from being Richard’s lover, creative collaborator, best friend, and co-parent, to being his caregiver, driver and chef, medicine administrator, butt-wiper, diaper wrangler, and eventually, the midwife of his death.

Escaping outside to the company of the restored mountain prairie of our front yard, our patio pollinator garden, or my organic kitchen garden was all that kept me even partly sane. After Richard died, I recognized that working with native plants to restore Earth is my calling, an expression of my Terraphilia. In this time of climate crisis, gun violence, racism, and sickening divisiveness, we need urgently need what plants can teach us about reweaving healthy community, about restoration and the power of simply working together.

A sacred datura flower (Datura wrightii), opening in my patio garden tonight, rain-washed by a grumbling thunderstorm.

In short, we need nature, and we need each other. So get outside, hug your family and friends, live with kindness, speak up and act out with courage, and love long and well. We can live with bruised hearts, and we can help each other heal and bring positive changes to this battered world. 

I'm not saying it will be easy, but we have to keep working at it. Together. With love and laughter, with outrage and steadfastness, with compassion and kindness and creativity. 

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Books: Horizon, Desert Cabal, and Flight Behavior

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One of the things I love most about starting the long process of working in a new book (long for me anyway--I'm a ridiculously slow writer) is that it's a license to read widely. Since my new memoir, Bless the Birds, went off to my agent for her read, I've been clearing off my desk to make literal and also metaphorical space for the next project. And reading. 

I have several books going right now, including Barry Lopez' deep and thoughtful new book of memoir/essays, Horizon. Barry's book is hefty at over 550 pages, so I'm taking it slowly, dipping in and reading a bit, and then savoring what I read. I'm not ready to say much about it except, Wow. 

As an example, here's the quote from Horizon that I'm using near the end of Bless the Birds: 

We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light. (p. 42)

I am deeply grateful to Barry for the gift of his thoughts and words over these many years, in whatever form. (He writes amazing fiction too.) His work and the letters we exchange sporadically have stretched and enriched my understanding of the world and of my life's mission. Barry never fails to reaching deep into my core; sometimes when I turn inward, feeling hopeless, he quietly but firmly turns me back toward the rest of life, too.

In contrast to Horizon, Amy Irvine's Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness is a deceptively small volume, coming in at just under 90 pages. The book's size is not, in any way, a reflection of its impact. Irvine's extended conversation-essay-dream is an frank and frankly feminist look at today's West and the part that Ed Abbey and his classic of western nature writing, Desert Solitaire, played in shaping it, an appraisal that is long overdue.  

Irving writes in the form of an extended conversation with Abbey on a visit to his grave in the desolate stretches of the Sonoran Desert somewhere not far from the Arizona-Mexico border. It's fresh and sometimes funny magical realism in service of understanding where we are and what the heck to do about it. Her forthright, fearless, and honest words offer a much-needed breath of female air and thought, in a field of writing that still models itself on men's voices, men's achievements, men's way of telling stories. There's nothing wrong with being male, but as Irvine points out (without saying it directly), women shouldn't be expected to be the same. And our voices and experiences matter. Especially now. 

With Abbey's beloved desert in danger of being loved to death: "Every where you look there are these hyped-up, tricked-out, uber-fit, machine-like humans that pump, grind, climb, soar, and scramble through the desert so fast they're just a muscled blur. The land's not the thing; it's the buzz." 

With public lands under a different kind of assault, as well, "endangered in ways we never conceived of...." by our current president's push to revive fossil fuels extraction. Including two of the national's newest national monuments in Utah, which "our so-called Commander-in-Chief has filleted..., leaving only the stark bones in custody." 

With the inhumanity of that same president's border policies, the increasing hatefulness of our society, and of course, the catastrophe of global climate change. Irvine's conversation with Abbey is at once fierce rant, affectionate address, and courageous speaking-truth-to-power, airing the flaws and prejudices in one of the canons of western literature: 

You should know up front that I'm admiring, but not starstruck. You got some things right, but you got other things wrong. Like calling the desert "Abbey's country." Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it "Amy's country"? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn't get to call it ours--because it's all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn't snatch from the region's Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another. But that's what the white man does. He comes in after the fact and lifts his leg on someone else's turf. You, sir, were no different.

I ripped through Desert Cabal, nodding appreciation, laughing, or smiling ruefully on each page. Irvine speaks my truth, and I imagine that of a lot of other women, in this slim but mighty--and classic--work. I LOVE Desert Cabal, and am reading the book again, slowly this time. 

Big thanks to the ever-gracious and forgiving Andy Nettel of Back of Beyond Books, who gifted me with a signed copy of Desert Cabal on my quick stop in Moab on the long road home from my Wyoming and Washington State road-trip, and to Torrey House Books for publishing Desert Cabal with Back of Beyond. 

Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behavior, has been on my to-read list for too long. I have no excuse for not reading it sooner, except that it came out a year after Richard's death. I didn't read much for several years, mostly because I was working so hard to keep my head above financial waters, and to make a home for myself. Oh, and to figure out who this solo "me" was and is. (I'm still working on the latter. Like life itself, it's a process, not a destination.)

Flight Behavior was published in 2012, when (incredibly now) most American's hadn't yet grasped that climate change wasn't in some distant future; the catastrophe was an is on us now. Reading it today, Kingsolver's poignant and compelling novel of what happens when the entire population of Monarch butterflies that usually winter in the Oyemel fir forests of central Mexico relocate to a single valley in the Appalachians, is even more gripping and prescient. As always, Kingsolver's writing lifts even the most elementary of stories right off the page to take glorious flight. As in this single sentence describing the winter sky:

Whoever was in charge if the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job.

(With experience in construction and renovation, I especially appreciate that metaphor!)

Not that Kingsolver has ever told an elementary story, and Flight Behavior, which traces both the perilous winter the monarch butterflies spend far north of their usual temperate refuge, and the effect of their climate-change-propelled relocation on the local residents, especially the main character, one smart, flame-haired Dellarobia, mother to two young kids, married at 17 years old to Cub, the mild-mannered son of a farming family, and desperate to drag her life out of the rut it is in. Those butterflies, which Dellarobia first sees without her glasses on and takes to be some kind of fire flickering over the steep hillsides above their farm, do the trick, but not easily or kindly or without heartbreak. 

This is a cautionary tale of what happens to each of us, to whole communities, to ecosystems, to the earth itself, when pushed beyond what we can bear. And Kingsolver lets it unfold at the personal and planetary levels simultaneously and beautifully believably, showing us, not telling us, what happens when we lose our way, lose our ability to care, lose our trust and love for even ourselves. (The thread on science and how badly scientists communicate and how cynically journalists sometimes exploit that absolutely nails both of my fields.) 

Flight Behavior is a gorgeous and compelling novel told by a master storyteller who can and does find the redemptive possibilities in even the most tragic of times. Dellarobia and her world--as well as those glorious monarchs, some of whom survive that calamitous winter in the wrong place--will stick with you long after you finish this soaring and searing story. 

**** 

On to more books in my ever-growing reading pile.... What books hold you in thrall right now? 

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Life: Practice in Revision and Adaptation

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For some years now, I've had this dream of a little camper with solar panels on top and a cozy bed, kitchen, and space to write--a super-tiny house on wheels--that I could live in while I do my weeding work in Yellowstone and other wild places. Over the winter, I got as far as putting down a deposit on the compact RV I had chosen. And then, the very same day the sale of my Cody house closed, the RV manufacturer went bankrupt. 

So I revised that dream, and settled instead on a sweet trailer made by Colorado Teardrops in Boulder, a  custom shop producing amazingly efficient, beautifully designed trailers, and working on becoming a zero-waste manufacturer. Their designs and values are very appealing. 

Only I found that plugging trailer brakes into the hybrid regenerative braking system in Noche, my beloved Toyota Highlander Hybrid, isn't allowed. (Meaning Toyota can't guarantee that the system would work with trailer brakes; further, adding the seven-pin hitch and brake socket would void my warranty.)

So I revised the dream again and fitted my basic camping set-up right into Noche, giving me a "micro-camper" with a cozy bed, storage for my clothes, weeding tools, camp-stove, a lap-desk for writing, and even a camp toilet. It's an amazingly comfortable set-up, if quite basic and compact. (And Noche averages 29-30 miles per gallon of gas, not bad for a vehicle I can sleep in--or transport seven friends or family members at a pinch.) 

My micro-camper set-up in Noche. 

It's also a lot cheaper than the custom camper I started out dreaming. Too, this set-up is better than my old camping space in Red, my pickup, because I'm inside Noche, not in a pickup bed. In bad weather or if something goes wrong, I just climb into Noche's front seat and head on my way without having to get outside. 

I still imagine that the perfect small camper van is out there for me, something energy-efficient, simple, comfy, and well-built--without costing an arm and six legs. Since I haven't found it yet, I'm quite comfortable with the simpler and smaller, revised version of that dream. Just being able to hit the road is a blessing. I get a lot of thinking done during windshield time, and I get to experience the landscapes I love in all sorts of moods and seasons. 

Heart Mountain, north of Cody, from Dead Indian Hill, where the grasslands were unbelievably green this spring.

Revision and adaptation seems to be a major theme in my life right now.

 For instance, I spent this spring revising Bless the Birds for what I hope is the final time. It's since been accepted for publication by SheWrites Press for their Spring, 2021 list. Which brings up an ending: Bless the Birds will go off my desk (finally!) and that opens up space for working on the next book, Weeding Yellowstone. 

Another revision and adaptation: I intended to spend a good part of my summer in Yellowstone digging weeds. Then I flunked my annual blood tests, so those plans got revised. Instead, I spent a long weekend in Cody helping my friends Jay and Connie Moody at TAC, a spiritual retreat center, and also got to hang out with Judy, another dear friend, who is recovering from a massive stroke.

The labyrinth at TAC at sunset, with Carter Mountain and the Absaroka Range in the background. 

In other words, I've been nurturing friendships instead of ecosystems. That's fine: tending both brings rewards. I'll resume my work in Yellowstone when I'm healthier again. 

Revising my Yellowstone plans also gave me time to drive to Washington state for a gathering of my family. Our branch of the Tweit clan isn't big, but we do love getting together. We've been having such a good time hanging out, playing Yellowstone National Park Monopoly, taking walks with the dogs, and eating great meals, that I haven't taken any any pictures at all.  

Instead of thinking and planning photo opportunities, I'm enjoying the moments as they arise, reveling in being here and taking part in life, laughter, and love. 

That's a healthy adaptation, I know.

Happy Summer to all!

Calochortus macrocarpus, sagebrush mariposa lily, in the coulee country of eastern Washington

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Writing: Immersed in Revision

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Friday afternoon I broke off from my current writing obsession--revising Bless the Birds yet one more time--to drive to Taos to meet with Professor Sara Beth Childers' "Writing the New Mexico Landscape" workshop at Oklahoma State University's Doel Reed Center for the Arts. After I read from some of my work, including Barren, Wild, and Worthless, which they studied in the workshop, we talked about writing over dinner at Old Martina's Hall in Ranchos de Taos, across from the famous church painted by Georgia O'Keeffe and many others. 

After the conversation with Sara Beth and her amazing students--all candidates for MFAs or PhDs in literature--I was so jazzed that I woke at around two-thirty thinking about the revisions I'm making to Bless the Birds. Normally when I wake in the night, my strategy is to let my thoughts spin out until I go back to sleep again. I do not get up, because then I'm awake and I often don't go back to sleep. 

But Friday night--actually early Saturday morning, the writing was speaking so loudly I just couldn't ignore it. So I turned on the light, got my laptop, and wrote down the two haiku in my head. (Yes, there are haiku in this memoir.) And then I wrote about seeds as a metaphor, and what it means to embrace the end of life when you are the one who will live on. Finally, at about four-thirty, I went back to sleep. 

Saturday morning, I re-read what I wrote and added a few more notes, and then headed off to Taos Ski Valley to meet Sara Beth and the group for a hike. (I got lost in the maze of non-named dirt roads and was late, but that's another story.) We hiked uphill on snow for two miles to Williams Lake, a lovely little lake still buried under deep snow in a glacial cirque. It was a slithery trip going steeply uphill, but the group was determined to make it to the lake. (We gained 800 feet elevation, going from 10,200 feet at the trailhead to 11,020 feet at the lake; my pedometer recorded the hike as equivalent to going up 36 flights of stairs!) 

Along the way, I talked about snow and forests and avalanches (we had to detour around debris fields of not one but two big avalanches), the "wood wide web" of fungal threads that connects trees, how to read the landscape, and other nature things. Oh, and we talked more about writing. (The photo at the top of the post is me talking with part of the group. Notice that the ground is white--we hiked on about two feet of old snow, the remnants of the first generous winter snowpack after many years of drought.)

The Taos Valley all spring green this weekend. We hiked up near the snowy bit at the top of the peaks in the distance. 

By the time we slithered our way back down to the trailhead and I said good bye to Sara Beth and the workshop participants, my head was full of more ideas about my revisions, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I drove home to Santa Fe and told myself to give revising and my brain a rest. Of course, I didn't listen: I just had to slip those two new haiku into the chapters where I heard them, and that of course led to more revising.

Then yesterday, Sunday, a day I usually give myself a break from writing, I had another idea about the story, so I worked my way through more revisions. And while today might have been a National Holiday, you wouldn't have known that from my schedule, which included four more hours of revising this morning and early afternoon. (I don't think the veterans in my life--Richard and my dad--would mind. They know I think of them every day.)

I finished Chapter 23, which leaves me four more chapters and the Epilogue to revise. The closer I get to the end--of the story and of that chapter of my life--the more urgency and intensity I feel to keep going, the drumbeat of narrative pushing me onward. 

That's what happens when a piece of writing takes on its own life, gaining strength and power: it sucks you in, and it's hard to step away from working with it. This story has been a tough one for me, going through many revisions as I struggled to find the heart of it. It's one thing to write about your life in a way that friends and family who know you or the story are moved.

It's a whole other thing to write the story in a way that anyone will be gripped and compelled to read on. As I revise and go deeper, I mine my personal experience for those universal themes and threads that will draw all readers in. I want Bless the Birds to grip them by the throat and not let them go, so that when they reach the end, the way they see life and its ending is forever changed. 

My aim with this revision is to walk a story about death right back into life and how we live it, with prose that shimmers as bright as the blooming yucca I photographed this morning on my ridge walk above my neighborhood, and dazzles like the claret cup cactus blossoms nearby.

I'm not obsessed, am I? Maybe, but there are worse things to be obsessed about than writing...

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) in full bloom; claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiaus) nearby

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Spring Wildflowers and Weeding: Medicine for the Spirit

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One of the things I love about my new neighborhood is that it's not manicured. And an arroyo--a stream channel that is usually dry on the surface but channels water underground--runs along one edge of the neighborhood.

This waterway serves as a pathway for wildlife and humans alike (oh, the nighttime coyote chorus!). At this time of year, birdsong fills the air when I walk at dawn, from the trilling of spotted and canyon towhees to flocks of busy bushtits, hoarse chickadees, and the sweet whistles of western bluebirds. 

The hills above the arroyo are polka-dotted with piñon pines and Rocky Mountain junipers, forming a dwarf woodland of short, wide trees. In between the trees, shrubs, bunchgrasses, and wildflowers stipple the adobe-colored soil.

The houses and condo developments sit within this still-more-wild-than-not landscape, rather than obliterating it. Which delights me, since I can walk out my door and be immersed in nature. While still living walking distance from the neighborhood Sprouts grocery and other urban amenities.  

A winter of abundant precipitation has sprouted a glorious progression of spring wildflowers. Some are familiar from the years Richard, Molly, and I lived in southern New Mexico; others are new. Here are photos of the blooming as I have witnessed it:

Woolly milkvetch (Astragalus mollisimus), the first spring flower to appear on my walking route. It's hard to imagine a more vivid antidote to winter than those magenta flowers.

Unless it is the sunshine yellow cushions of this diminutive bladderpod (Physaria species), which I'll be able to identify once it has seedpods.

I thought the bladderpod flowers maxed out yellow until the fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) started to bloom! 

And then the perky sue (Tetraneuris argenteus) upped the ante to pure gold, like splatters of earthbound sunshine. 

Perky sue en masse, a chromatic splash of color. 

Then more purple flowers began to bloom, starting with plains verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida), which broadcasts a lovely sweet scent. 

Scorpionweed (Phacelia integrafolia) unfurls its lilac blossoms with the outrageously long dancing stamens... 

Just as wax currant's dangling ivory bells open (Ribes cereum). Scorpionweed appeals to native bees, wax currant flowers' abundant nectar feeds  migrating hummingbirds.  

More milkvetches bloom. Thanks to help from Al Schneider of Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, I think the carpet-former with the dainty flowers above is Nuttall's milkvetch (Astragalus nuttalliana).

This ivory milkvetch may be Astragalus bisulcatus, but I'll have to wait for seedpods to make a definitive ID. 

The surprise on this morning's walk was this charming and very tiny bristly nama (Nama hispida), with purple flowers the size of my thumbnail on a plant all of two inches tall!

Of course, all of that wonderful winter and early spring moisture sprouted seeds of invasive weeds too. So I am--of course!--pulling weeds around my neighborhood to help control these aggressive plants that germinate en masse and crowd out the wildflowers that our pollinators and songbirds depend on.

I started with tansy mustard (Descuriana sophia), an annual that sprouts over the winter, and then shoots up a flower stalk with tiny yellow cross-shaped flowers as the soil temperatures warm up. Like all annuals, it seeds prolifically, but is easy to eradicate by pulling the shallowly rooted plants and bagging them, seeds and all, for the trash. 

Now I'm working on cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), another Eurasian invasive annual weed. Its nodding seed-heads are quite distinctive, and it is also easy to pull until it dries out. Cheatgrass gets its common name because it is often the first grass to green up, making whole swaths of landscape look deceptively lush. Until the the grass plants dry out and die a few weeks later, and shatter, scattering their abundant seeds and leaving the soil bare. It cheats grazers of forage and cheats the landscape of nutrients. 

Me, weeding cheatgrass from under the cottonwood trees at the entrance of my neighborhood. 

Helping control the invasive weeds in my neighborhood is my way of giving back to these high-desert landscapes for the gifts they give me. The bird-song, coyote choruses, the wildflowers in spring, the butterflies and hummingbirds now fluttering and hovering past my window. Weeding helps keep the relationships that sustain the world I love intact and healthy. It's also deeply rewarding to see the wildflowers return in the space I've freed for them. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in the journal Humans and Nature:

Ecological restoration is an act of reciprocity, and the Earth asks us to turn our gifts to healing the damage we have done. The Earth-shaping prowess that we thoughtlessly use to sicken the land can be used to heal it. It is not just the land that is broken, but our relationship with land. We can be partners in renewal; we can be medicine for the Earth.

Pulling invasive weeds is my way of being partner in renewal; it is medicine both for Earth and for my battered spirit. 

What is your way of being medicine for this living planet, the only home our species has ever known?

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Renovation: Condo and Memoir

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When I bought my snug condo last October, I promised myself I would not get involved in a long renovation project. There was nothing really wrong with the place, except for being a bit stuck in 1984, when the building was built. (The photo above is the dining area as I first saw it.)

Well, nothing wrong except for the 20-year-old carpet. Carpet and my lungs don't get along. And carpet replacement isn't really renovation, or at least not much. It's pretty simple. Carlos Ornelas, the head of maintenance at my condo complex, pulled up the old carpet, and my fabulous Cody contractor, Jeff Durham, drove to Santa Fe to meet me and install plank floors. 

Only there was a rare October blizzard the day Jeff left Wyoming hauling his workshop trailer. By the time he arrived at midnight, he figured he was hauling an extra ton or so of snow and ice. Still, he plunged right into work the next day, and by the time he left at the end of the week, I not only had gorgeous new plank floors and baseboard, I also had a chic ceiling fan-light in the dining area, thanks to my artist friend CC Barton, who had removed it from her house down the hill. 

The dining area with new plank flooring and the new ceiling fan/light (the old one is sitting on the floor--it went to a good home). 

The new floors looked so great that I decided to have Carlos paint a few of the walls something other than white, to add some color. That wasn't really renovation either, just paint. 

The living room, with plank floors and paint--and Arabella, who rode all the way from Wyoming in the back of Red, my truck. 
The living room, before the not-exactly-renovation improvements. 

With new flooring and paint though, the kitchen really looked tired. 

The kitchen before (you can't tell how shabby the cabinets are in this photo, or that the breakfast bar is so tilted you could easily roll marbles--or food--off of it.)

So I decided to have the cabinets refaced and the counters replaced, plus I bought new appliances at a fall sale. None of that was really involved, and it would all be done before I moved anyway, so it wasn't really much renovation.

Right? 

Well... Actually the kitchen didn't get finished until February, because of the usual issues--stuff we didn't expect to have to fix, the holidays, appliances that got delayed, and so on. But it was worth the wait, no doubt about that. 

The dining area and the kitchen after renovation. The breakfast bar is level, the cabinets aren't ugly, and the appliances all work.

After the long kitchen process, ultimately satisfying as it was, I said to myself, okay, No. More. Renovation. 

And I didn't listen. In March, Nick, the manager of our condo association, announced that he had negotiated a bulk buy for good-quality windows and patio doors to replace the 35-year-old not-great-quality originals. He was looking for owners interested in pioneering the replacement project, which the association would manage with a contractor Nick had selected and vetted. So of course I signed up. 

Because... I feel like I've found my forever-home. And because I had saved up money to buy my small van-camper, and when that fell through, I figured I might as well invest in improving my condo.

Also, replacing the old windows in my Cody house with new ones in the same style but more efficient showed me what a huge difference that can make, in comfort and a smaller energy footprint. Since I live and work in my condo and I care about climate change, those matter--along with beauty. 

So this week, my living room, which had been looking pretty settled, went from the photo above to the photo below, as Jose and crew of Twins Construction took out the old sliding glass doors, which leaked so badly it was ridiculous, and put in the beautiful and solid new ones.

Except... the manufacturer sent a door that opens from the right side (from inside) instead of from the left. So this door is tacked into place until the correct one is made and shipped, in about three weeks. 

The rest of the project went more smoothly, if not more quietly. Removing the old doors and windows, and cutting a new door opening from the guest bedroom to the patio where there was just a window before involves pounding the stucco off the walls outside, and pounding the metal drywall corners off of the inside. Which makes for dust, and--did I mention this?--noise. A lot of both.

The new door opening from the guest bedroom to the patio in progress. 

The door in place and trimmed, waiting for touch-up paint. 

But oh! The new windows and doors are solid, beautiful, and well-insulated. My condo is now much quieter than it was before construction, and the temperature stays constant. So its definitely worth the cost and disruption. 

The new window in my bedroom/office. 

After the adventures of the past week, I promised myself that I am NOT doing any more renovation.

At least not until fall, when I think I'll tackle one of the bathrooms, which both have stupidly low counters and tub/shower units showing signs of leprosy...

I am doing some renovation to my memoir-in-progress. I read the first 20 pages of Bless the Birds out loud before submitting them to another publisher. As I read, I "heard" some places that could be improved, so I did a bit of revision. Just as with my condo after Jeff painstakingly laid down the new plank floor, once I made some improvements to those first twenty pages, I could see other parts that needed work too. 

So I'm reading through and renovating the story, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. My aim is to go from darkness to light, grief to laughter, even as the story cycles through Richard's brain cancer and death. I'm highlighting our shared terraphilia--our love for life and for this Earth. It's not easy, but it feels right. 

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Dad's Birds

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I saw my first Curve-billed Thrasher of spring yesterday, that yellow eye bright, curved beak raking the soil for insects to eat. I've been thinking about my dad, Bob Tweit, ever since. (That's Dad and Mom, Joan Tweit, in the photo above, in their native habitat in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson.) Dad studied Curve-billed Thrashers, their lives, habits, and their taxonomy--in fact, he wrote the monograph on Curve-bills for Cornell University's Birds of North America series.

(It's really more correct to say that he and Mom co-authored it, since while he did the research for that monograph and all of his other research papers, and then wrote a rough draft, it was Mom who revised those drafts, adding color, depth, and clarity, making the whole readable. She was credited as co-author on later papers.)

My dad took up birdwatching when I was too young to realize what that meant. He and Mom were interested in all things nature. The collection of Peterson Field Guides on the bookshelf testified to their omnivorousness: volumes on rocks, wildflowers, insects, stars, seashells, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, animal tracks, fish, and birds. The drawers of the surrounding cabinets were filled with neatly labeled and organized rock specimens, seashells, and found animal bones.

When my brother, Bill, began to focus on birds at about age seven, Dad followed, and even Mom turned her musician's ear and perfect pitch to learning bird songs and calls.

The birdwatchers in Florida (photo by me using my Brownie box camera!)

Which left me the odd girl out. Plants were my people, as I write in my memoir-in-progress, Bless the Birds:

I enjoy birds; they’re just not my life’s passion. As I have maintained since childhood, when I was periodically dragged out of bed before dawn to trek to some sewage lagoon where a rare Red-Legged Hoo-Ha had been spotted, birds get up too early and, unlike plants, they don’t hold still so you can easily identify them.

I was outnumbered. Our family vacations were soon shaped by the pursuit of new bird species. While 3/4 of the family had their binoculars up, watching the latest sighting avidly, I usually had my nose in a book. I didn't mind watching birds when they flew past, but the quest to see all of the bird species known from North America (that number is 993 according to the American Birding Association) did not light a fire in my soul as it did for the rest of my family, especially Dad and Bill. 

I remember one summer vacation day when I was 14 and hadn't yet learned to drive. On a lonely stretch of US Highway 50 in Nevada, 

Dad positioned my hands on the steering wheel as the camper rolled along, "Keep us on the road," he said.

Then he stuck his head out the driver's side window and turned his face up to the sky, binoculars in hand. Like a mirror image, my brother in the passenger seat put his upturned head out his window and scanned the heavens as well. 

... We cruised along across a wide-open desert basin on a deserted two-lane highway, my hands on the steering wheel and my eyes on the road, my dad's foot on the accelerator, his eyes on the sky. I was perched on the engine case between the two front seats; Mom, in the dinette at the rear of the camper, was engrossed in a book. The sky was clear blue and the air rushing in the open windows was so parched I could feel it sucking the moisture from my skin. 

I don't remember what species of hawk he and my brother were searching for, or even whether they spotted one. But I can still recall the feel of the steering wheel, thrumming with the vibrations of hte tires on the asphalt; the sweetly turpentine-like pungence of sagebrush on the air; and the sight of the empty highway unrolling in front of us. 

Joy soared through me. I felt weightless, the way I imagine their hawk might feel when a rising bubble of hot air buoys its outstretched wings, flexing feather and bone as it carries the bird upward.    

--excerpt from Walking Nature Home, A Life's Journey (Univ. of Texas Press)

When Dad retired from a career in a chemistry lab developing medicines, he and Mom took up volunteering in national parks and monuments, and Dad took up bird research. He got his banding license, and began to capture birds with mist nets set up in their Tucson backyard, which they had restored to native desert and mesquite bosque. They also began to travel more widely, eventually visiting every continent except Africa and Antarctica, looking for new birds along the way. 

Dad and Mom watching waterbirds at Bear River National Wildlife Refuge in Utah, using a camper as their "blind."

Late last September, when Dad was in hospice care at my brother and sister-in-law's house, I helped with his care near the end. When he felt like talking, I encouraged him to tell me stories about his childhood, and about his and Mom's travels. 

One afternoon, I found Dad gazing up at the wall opposite his bed. I asked if he was looking at the watercolor painting of Yosemite Valley by my great-grandmother, JV Cannon. 

"No," he said, his tone patient, as if instructing me, "Look higher." 

I did, and all I saw was the plaster where the wall joined the ceiling. 

"It's a bird," Dad said, still patient. "Soaring." 

I looked again, but saw only the walls and ceiling. 

"It's got long wings," Dad continued. "It's black with white patches underneath its wings." 

I knew this was a quiz. I took a wild guess: "Is it the Harpy Eagle you were telling me about last night from your trip to Venezuela?" 

"Harpy Eagles are gray," he said in a tone of disappointment, and I knew I had failed. Dad waited a moment, and then said, "It's a California Condor. You and Richard saw them on Big Sur." 

"Of course." I found myself trying to figure out how the largest bird in North America, with a nearly ten-foot wingspan, could soar in the confines of a nine-by-twelve foot room. "I'm glad the condor came to visit you." 

"Yes." Dad nodded, and his gaze continued to track the huge bird, a smile on his face.

I sat with him until his eyes closed, and then went to the kitchen. Later, I told my brother about Dad's hallucination.

"A California condor," Bill said. "Good one!"

I take comfort from the idea that one of Dad's birds came to visit, soaring with him as his spirit soared from this world to the next. I'm sure he and Mom are together again, Dad's binoculars around his neck, his hand in Mom's, and her ears cocked for whatever birds are singing. 

Bob and Joan Tweit, December 2008

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